Friday, 23 November 2012

The Numbers Game

St Helier spends £800,000 to make walkway to Town Park. Parishioners in St Helier have agreed to spend £800,000 to buy a residential building in Belmont Road to improve access to the Town Park. The Roads Committee and Procureurs du Bien Public, which oversees parish spending, recommended the purchase to create a public walkway. The property, 32 Belmont Road, is currently owned by Jersey Gas. At a parish assembly on Wednesday night, 28 people voted in favour of the purchase and 17 voted against.

Once purchased, work will start on refurbishing the four flats in the building, before selling them on. A spokesman for the parish said it was hoped the walkway would make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists to get to the park. At the moment cyclists have to dismount in Bath Street.(1)

I should say at the start that I think this is a good proposition, and in fact, it is more like a loan of £800,000 - if you read the story carefully, the flats will be refurbished and sold on, so the Parish hopefully will at least break even, and have a footpath as well.

But I'd also note that only 45 people voted on the matter. There are around 26,860 eligible voters in St Helier, so that amounts to around 0.16% of the voting population  That's a very small proportion to make big decisions.

And even if everyone wanted to come who could vote, they could not. The Assembly Room has a capacity of around 270, which means that at most around 1% of the St Helier electorate could be accomodated.  The same problem besets other Parishes, and it is why when Bob le Brocq was Constable, one acrimonious assembly on the high rates and what was thought to be excessive spending by the Constable was held at the Gloucester Hall. Likewise, a tempestuous assembly in St Brelade in the 1980s had to be held at Quennevais School. Even though these venues accommodated more people, they still could not accommodate all the electorate.

G.K. Chesterton once noted that the House of Commons could not hold all the Members of Parliament, if they all turned up. He said that "it is a very good example of what we call the anomalies of the English Constitution. It is also, I think, a very good example of how highly undesirable those anomalies really are."

And he went on to note that:

When people have grown familiar with an anomaly, they are prepared to that extent for a grievance; they may think the grievance grievous, but they can no longer think it strange. Take, if only as an excellent example, the very matter alluded to before; I mean the seats, or rather the lack of seats, in the House of Commons. Perhaps it is true that under the best conditions it would never happen that every member turned up. Perhaps a complete attendance would never actually be. But who can tell how much influence in keeping members away may have been exerted by this calm assumption that they would stop away? How can any man be expected to help to make a full attendance when he knows that a full attendance is actually forbidden? (2)

What was proper and workable for a different age when St Helier had a population the size of St Mary today is simply not workable in practice. It won't do to say that if people wanted to vote differently, they could turn up and do so. If 500 people turned up, many would have to be turned away, or to stay at different points in the Town Hall until a vote was called then come, vote and leave. If the 717 people who voted for Judy Martin turned up, there would be serious difficulties. If even 20% of the electorate turned up, the whole matter would be impossible.

At St Brelade, the parking at St Aubin would be swamped as well. The Parish Hall belongs to an age before the demographic adjustments of housing estates at Quennevais and in the more Westerly parts of the Parish were built, and parking is poor. More of the Parishioners live closer to Quennevais than St Aubin, another example of how time has displaced traditional locales that were fine when St Brelade was largely a smaller farming community.

Perhaps it is time to look at better ways to engage the public. A recent report in an American Law journal looks at how the internet can improve civic engagement:

Sociologist Barry Wellman took another approach to understanding the Internet as help or hindrance to civic engagement. Sharing a concept called "networked individualism," Wellman argues that new technologies are shifting the core of communities from physically fixed and bounded groups to social networks.

These dynamic online tools are also being used by government at all levels to increase citizen feedback and participation. The Benton Foundation's publication, Using Technology and Innovation to Address Our Nation's Critical Challenges, stated that the Internet as "tremendous opportunity to reenergize government, making it more efficient, transparent, accountable, and open to the active participation of the citizens it serves, while generating cost savings in the billions of dollars."

Stating that civic engagement is the "lifeblood" of our democracy and the "bedrock" of its legitimacy, the National Broadband Plan offers concise recommendations that bring people closer to government, and government information and tools closer to the government's constituents. (3)

Perhaps what is needed is some kind of pin code and password method by which people can engage and vote on Parish distances from their own homes. It would be a good entry into civil engagement, and a scheme which might lead to electronic voting at States elections, and it would act as a good starting point for civil engagement. After all, if banks can use such schemes for secure access to secured sites, why can't Parishes start to do this? Voters could come to the Parish hall, show identity much as they do nowadays for States elections, be crossed off the electoral role, and pick up a sealed envelope with random pin and password on it.
The key difficulty would be preventing voters who moved out of the Parish from voting, but if one stage of voting included entering the electoral number, that would be as least as accurate as the position regarding votes for States members - in which, it should be noted, several people appeared in St Brelade No 1 and St Brelade No 2, of whom around 5 were at the same address in both districts!

Details about propositions could be placed on the Parish Website before hand, and submissions regarding voting for and against placed there as well, so that the public would be better informed than the bare bones of a question on which to vote.

Unfortunately, inertia tends to prevail, unless there is someone with a more dynamic frame of mind who would look at bringing it in, it probably won't happen for a long time. There may also be resistance because generally activitists don't like giving any say to those who are not activists themselves. Their notion of democratic means that voting is restricted to those with the time and ability to go to meetings and vote, and they have time on their hands, whereas other people might just have other more pressing commitments.

America has a site on "Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century":

Online Town Hall Meetings: Exploring Democracy in the 21st Century is a report summarizing the findings and recommendations from an academic study of 21 online town hall meetings between Members of Congress and their constituents which were facilitated by the partners of the Connecting to Congress project. The report is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and contributions from Harvard's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

These are at present just discussion related groups, not voting groups, but the results are very interesting, especially when it comes to engagement in the political process. It noted that:

Our findings strongly suggest that the sort of online town halls which we facilitated can actually reduce existing inequalities. Of the seven characteristics that traditionally predict participation in partisan and activist politics, six of them had the opposite effect for participation in the online town halls. Only level of education had the same effect. A multivariate analysis reveals that younger people, racial minorities, and lower income people were significantly more willing to participate in the town halls, all of which are reversals from traditional participation patterns. Similarly, women, less partisan people, and non-church goers - also demographics traditionally less represented in political participation - were slightly more likely to want to participate. Perhaps most interesting of all, constituents whose responses to the survey questions indicated they were generally frustrated and cynical about politics were especially eager to participate. (4)

But Estonia is already streets ahead, having had systems in place since 2005, and allows its citizens to vote in the comfort of their homes - via the Internet:

Using an identity card and computer, Estonians can log on to an election website and cast a vote. Should they change their mind, no problem: they can log on again and re-submit their vote before a certain deadline. Only their last vote counts.

"It's a very normal and useful democracy service," said Liia Hanni, program director at Estonia's eGovernance Academy, a nonprofit organization that has advised some 20 governments around the world on technology. A key to the system's success in Estonia is citizens' wide acceptance of a digital identity and electronic chip-enabled ID card. Essentially a digital signature, the ID card is also used for checking out library books, paying bus fares, and even keeping track of medical data. While voting via the Internet, the ID is inserted into a card reader that is plugged into a computer. Identification - but not the actual voting - can be also done through a mobile device via a special SIM card. (5)

Elsewhere new patterns of online participation are coming to the fore. A referendum can be a costly business, but Swiss voters can do some online:

Swiss voters have been able to vote over the Internet in some referendums since the federal government and some cantons (states) began experimenting with electronic ballots a decade ago, and this year 12 cantons were authorized to use online voting during federal elections in June. (5)

With all the rhetoric about Jersey leading the way in modern electronic communications that comes (mostly from Economic Development), isn't it about time we actually provided proof that we can do so?

(3) The Challenge of Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Age. Nicol Turner-Lee, Federal Communications Law Journal. Volume: 63. Issue: 1 Publication date: December 2010.


Mark Forskitt said...

The British Computer Society manage their elections and voting electronically. They have over 70,000 members, so it really ought to be possible to do it here too.

James said...

Voters could come to the Parish hall, show identity much as they do nowadays for States elections, be crossed off the electoral role, and pick up a sealed envelope with a random PIN and password on it.

Bear in mind that you would have to generate a database at the Parish end which would match the random PIN/password combination to the person. This is non-trivial.

The other great objection to online voting is that it simply isn't possible to ensure that only the elector votes. There is no way of stopping me from casting my wife's vote if she leaves the envelope at home - any more than there is any way of preventing you from voting on behalf of your son. For a private membership society such as the BCS that would not generally be an issue: on matters of public interest it would.

TonyTheProf said...

James - Estonia manages it, Switzerland manages it, more EU countries are looking at it. I think it is possible, unless Jersey is just too backward compared to Estonia!